This scene from the 2019 film JOKER arrested the world's imagination. In today's COVID crisis, it is even more relevant.
Joker is an ambiguous playing card. He can replace any other card in the deck. Taken on face value, Joker means nothing. In this way, the card invites all possible readings, while at the same resisting any reading. Take this concept to the cinema, and you get Todd Phillips’s JOKER - a film that plays Poker Face on its audiences.
Joaquin Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian with a laughing disorder. Living in a co-dependency with his ailing mother Penny, Arthur is jobless and depressed. He has no social life – people reject him because of his strange laughter. He gets beaten up, harassed and abandoned by the social services. Arthur becomes violent, killing three people in a subway incident. The violence inspires Gotham City’s underclasses to start a masked revolution.
Arthur never gets a diagnosis, but his ambivalent laughter may be likened to double-bind communication. The double bind is a simple psychological concept: an individual receives two contradictory messages, with each message negating the other. A typical example is a mother telling her child: “Be spontaneous.” If the child acts spontaneously, he is not acting spontaneously because he is following his mother’s direction. As a result, the child may lose his grip on reality.
Polarized reactions confirm the impact of this mad design. Leftists see the Joker as a social justice warrior. Liberals see him as a righteous vigilante. Christians recognize the Jesus of the Old Testament. Boomers describe him as a failed Anarchist. Millennials cheer the modern Nihilist. Common to all these reactions is a feeling of paralysis. The thought that we can neither live in society, nor proceed as independent agents.
The Covid-19 pandemic put us in a similar situation. On the one hand, we must be extremely social, putting the health of others above our private concerns. On the other hand, extended isolation makes us anti-social. Many people are doing Joker's dance in their own living room.
The double bind is difficult, but not entirely hopeless. As Einstein said, ‘’No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.’’ There are two ways to approach this. We can embrace the double bind, enjoy our suffering in paralysis. Or we can think of an opportunity beyond mutually exclusive options.
If this concept doesn't exactly provide a solution, at least it points in the right direction.